Striving for the moral self: The effects of recalling past moral actions on future moral behavior

Jennifer Jordan*, Elizabeth Mullen, J. Keith Murnighan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

323 Scopus citations


People's desires to see themselves as moral actors can contribute to their striving for and achievement of a sense of self-completeness. The authors use self-completion theory to predict (and show) that recalling one's own (im)moral behavior leads to compensatory rather than consistent moral action as a way of completing the moral self. In three studies, people who recalled their immoral behavior reported greater participation in moral activities (Study 1), reported stronger prosocial intentions (Study 2), and showed less cheating (Study 3) than people who recalled their moral behavior. These compensatory effects were related to the moral magnitude of the recalled event, but they did not emerge when people recalled their own positive or negative nonmoral behavior (Study 2) or others' (im)moral behavior (Study 3). Thus, the authors extend self-completion theory to the moral domain and use it to integrate the research on moral cleansing (remunerative moral strivings) and moral licensing (relaxed moral strivings).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)701-713
Number of pages13
JournalPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011


  • cheating
  • moral compensation
  • moral identity
  • moral self
  • morality
  • self-completion theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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